How to Score Free Milkweed Seeds for a Monarch-Friendly Garden

Support endangered monarch butterflies by growing milkweed, an essential host plant for these iconic butterflies.

Monarch butterfly on Asclepias curassavica milkweed
Photo:

Adrienne Legault / BHG

Seeing a monarch butterfly is completely thrilling. Their huge, unmistakable black and orange wings are bewitching. Not only are they fascinating to look at, they're also are important pollinators for fruit and flowers. But sadly, the International Union for Conservation of Nature officially declared the migratory monarch as an endangered species in July 2022. Their population has dropped with destruction of their habitats in Mexico and California and the loss of milkweed in breeding grounds in the Midwest and Canada. One of the most effective ways you can help monarch butterflies is to plant milkweed in your garden. Here's how you can find free milkweed seeds to get started, plus find out how to grow milkweed for monarchs.

Monarch caterpillar on pink flowers
Kritsada Panichgul

Why is milkweed important to monarchs?

Milkweed is a perennial flower native to North America that thrive in a wide array of ecosystems. This plant is essential to the life cycle of monarch butterflies because the insects need milkweed to lay their eggs. When the eggs hatch, milkweed is the only plant the white, black, and yellow striped caterpillars will eat. This makes it an essential element for helping the next generation of monarchs grow and hatch each season. It's more important now that the monarch population is declining so alarmingly.

How to Get Free Milkweed Seeds

To lend monarch butterflies a helping hand, some organizations are making milkweed seeds more accessible for everyone. They send the seeds to gardeners, students, and enthusiasts to support the conservation of butterflies and their habitats. The organizations that send free seeds include Live Monarch, Monarch Watch, and Little Wings.

Live Monarch is celebrating 21 years of helping monarch butterflies. Live Monarch states that this program is for students, educators, and those in need. They ask if you can afford the seeds to purchase them yourself. To get free seeds, mail a self addressed, stamped envelope to Live Monarch - 2022 Seed Campaign, Po Box 1339, Blairsville, Georgia 30514. In return, you'll receive 15 or more milkweed seeds for your region. Due to the organization's popularity and increased demand, it takes approximately 2-4 weeks to receive the seeds.

Monarch Watch offers free seeds for habitat restoration projects. To participate, you must have two acres of land or 1/4 of an acre in California. A few places are not eligible to participate in this program including Canada, South Carolina, Arkansas, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, Florida, and parts of Texas and North Carolina. You have submit an application. If selected, you cover the shipping and within a week will have tons of milkweed seeds to plant based on your location.

Little Wings provides free seeds through their website. Currently, they only have stock in common milkweed, which is a versatile variety that should grow in many regions. Click the "add to cart" button on the available seeds. Once in the cart, add your shipping info. In 1-2 week, your milkweed seeds should arrive and you can start planting.

Monarch butterfly on common milkweed Blood Flower (Asclepias curassavica)

Adrienne Legault / BHG

Common Milkweed Varieties

There are over 70 types of native milkweed (Asclepias spp.) throughout the United States. When planting milkweed, try to find the right variety for your location. This way you don't run into issues with seasonality, weather conditions, and winter hardiness.

Best Milkweed Varieties for the Northeast

  • Swamp milkweed (A. incarnata)
  • Common milkweed (A. syriaca)
  • Butterfly milkweed (A. tuberosa)
  • Clasping milkweed (A. amplexicaulis)
  • Poke milkweed (A. exaltata)
  • Fourleaf milkweed (A. quadrifolia)

Best Milkweed Varieties for the Southeast

  • Clasping milkweed (A. amplexicaulis)
  • Butterfly milkweed (A. tuberosa)
  • Radring milkweed (A. variegata)
  • Whorled milkweed (A. verticillata)
  • Green comet milkweed (A. viridiflora)
  • Pinewooods milkweed (A. humistrata)
  • Swamp milkweed (A. incarnata)
  • Longleaf milkweed (A. syriaca)
  • Tropical milkweed (A. curassavica)

Best Milkweed Varieties for the Midwest

  • Swamp milkweed (A. incarnata)
  • Showy milkweed (A. speciosa)
  • Common milkweed (A. syriaca)
  • Whorled milkweed (A. verticillata)
  • Butterfly milkweed (A. tuberosa)

Best Milkweed Varieties for the South

  • Green antelope horn milkweed (A. viridis)
  • Antelope horn milkweed (A. asperula)
  • Broadleaf milkweed (A. latifolia)
  • Zizotes milkweed (A. oenotheroides)
  • Butterfly milkweed (A. tuberosa)
  • Swamp milkweed (A. incarnata)
  • Arizona milkweed (A. angustifolia)
  • Rush milkweed (A. subulata)
  • Tropical milkweed (A. curassavica)

Best Milkweed Varieties for the Northwest

  • Showy milkweed (A. speciosa)
  • Broadleaf milkweed (A. latifolia)

Best Milkweed Varieties for California

  • Mexican whorled milkweed (A. fascicularis)
  • Heartleaf milkweed (A. cordifo-lia)
  • Woolly milkweed (A. vestita)
  • California milkweed (A. californica)
  • Desert milkweed (A. erosa)
  • Woolypod milkweed (A. eriocarpa)

How to Plant Milkweed Seeds

If you get milkweed seeds for your garden, you can plant them in spring or fall. Start them indoors in late winter or early spring. Growing the plants inside for a few months gives them extra time to mature before transplanting outside. Plant your milkweed seedlings outside after the last sign of frost in your region. In the fall, simply scatter the seeds outdoors where you want them to grow. They won't sprout until they've been exposed to freezing temperatures. Once spring comes, the seeds will be ready to start growing. They may not bloom the first year, but they'll still have leaves to offer to monarch caterpillars.

The monarch butterfly population won't recover overnight, but gardeners all across the country can help just by including a few milkweed plants in their yards. Don't forget to mail in your envelop and donation (if able!) to an organization that offers free milkweed seeds. In addition to milkweed, adult monarchs also love nectar-rich plants like lantana, rudbeckia, and yarrow. These flowering plants make it easy to beautify your garden and help monarch butterflies.

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